Book Review: YA author takes on immigration in ‘The Border’
September 22, 2017
With all the contentious discussions around immigration policy in the United States, there are stories on all sides of the debate that highlight how complex the problem — and the considered solutions — have become. A new young adult novel dives right into the fracas with a riveting story of survival and perseverance along the unforgiving frontier of the Sonoran desert. "The Border" is the debut novel of author Steve Schafer, whose motivation for the book stemmed from a desire to encourage a deeper consideration of the real human lives that surround the politically charged issue of immigration.
"Empathy begins with the recognition that everyone has a story," Schafer says, and he reminds readers not to forget that most immigrants "leave desperate situations to find an opportunity for a better life. And they risk everything along the way." His novel imagines a scenario in which four desperate Mexican teens are forced to flee for their lives and brave the punishing conditions of the scorching desert in an attempt to leave behind a scene of devastating violence that has made them instant orphans with bounties on their heads.
Young Pato and his unfortunate companions are introduced to the reader as normal, modern youths, caught up in the daily dramas of being adolescents. They never expect a cousin's joyful quinceañera party to end in unimaginable tragedy, but the blitz of gunshots that claim the lives of their loved ones sets them on a desperate struggle for survival that leaves them no choice but to leave behind their own country, and everything they have ever known. But, their home country has become "a place so unwelcoming you can happily walk into a miserable desert and never look back."
Schafer is adept at building relatable characters, even though their situations are beyond comprehension for most readers. The dialogue is natural and it flows easily, and the relationships between the four protagonists are natural and sympathetic, giving a depth to what could have been a pure ride of tense action. The natural urges for revenge and crippling hatred swamp the youths, as they ponder lives without their loved ones. But, Schafer plays this emotional tension out between the conflicted characters, more firmly anchoring them to the only real option available — a suicidal trek into the punishing heat of the borderlands.
The border looms like a character in its own right, a mythological and mostly symbolic line on a deathly expanse of sand, a place so inhospitable that only those in the most precarious of situations dare it.
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Schafer tackles themes familiar from the daily headlines surrounding the contentious subject of immigration, though little of the action actually takes place in the United States. The bulk of the gripping story centers on the teens' desperate efforts to outrun the most notorious drug cartel, "La Frontera," which is anxious to have no errant witnesses to their violent attack on those at the doomed coming-of-age festivities. In a world where no one can be trusted, and the lines between the lawless and law enforcement are often blurred, Pato and his friends have to rely on themselves and each other.
The border looms like a character in its own right, a mythological and mostly symbolic line on a deathly expanse of sand, a place so inhospitable that only those in the most precarious of situations dare it. When the foursome finally reach the fabled fence marking the boundary, it is nearly falling over, an afterthought, for "the fence is insignificant because it can be." The desert, itself — the heat, the snakes and scorpions, and the marauding gangs of "narcos" — all compete for dominance as the most dangerous threat to life and limb.
Schafer says that the motivation for the book initially came from a real life event, the kidnapping of a friend's loved one in Mexico. Immigration stories have always fascinated him, and he was very aware of his own privilege growing up, thus he thought to examine the narrative from a perspective different from his own. With "The Border," he succeeds in writing a deeply sympathetic and human tale that is exceedingly timely and relevant, and it is a book that will appeal to both young people and adults, alike.
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